ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Dec 15 2020 07:43PM

Christmas 2020 looks like being a very different celebration this year, coming after more than ten months of grappling with SARS-CoV-2. There’s nothing at all good about Covid-19 with more than 68 million cases worldwide and over 1.5 million deaths (as of 10/12/20); it has exposed a failure to prepare for a pandemic and the shortcomings of some of our world leaders; name-calling and displays of patriotism were never statesmanlike but in the current crisis, even less so. If there’s one silver lining to the cloud, it’s exemplified by the collaborative approach to firstly designing test kits to detect presence of Covid-19, and then producing effective vaccines against this coronavirus. The novel mRNA vaccine should give hope to anyone suffering from a range of other existing diseases that don’t yet attract funding for vaccine research.


Matt Hancock speaking in the House of Commons
Matt Hancock speaking in the House of Commons



Professor Chris Whitty at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference
Professor Chris Whitty at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference

For those who value ‘the economy’ over an individual’s wellbeing, the salutary lesson is that an economy only functions when people have jobs and their earnings are used to buy things, so everyone’s wellbeing should be the highest priority. Global interest rates are so low it doesn’t matter how much a government borrows to secure the livelihood of its citizens but some nations, like the UK, have staggered from one policy to the next with a dogmatic myopia, arguing over pennies for food vouchers and haggling over a rise in income support while handing out billions to unqualified friends without the usual scrutiny. Can anyone be surprised that these ‘jobs for the boys’ have proved a gargantuan waste of money?



Dido Harding facing questions from the Health and Social Care Committee
Dido Harding facing questions from the Health and Social Care Committee

Though a vaccine is obviously going to be the most important measure to eradicate the virus, the simple things like hand sanitation, face coverings and social spacing still have a crucial role to play, as does clear communication of a long-term strategy and the political will to make difficult choices. Here in the UK, the nationwide Christmas amnesty from the Covid-19 restrictions is possibly the most foolhardy idea the government has come up with, following on from a late initial lockdown, an early lifting of restrictions (largely due to the erosion of the good will and understanding of the general population following Johnson’s unwillingness to sack Dominic Cummings after a clear breach of the regulations at the time), the tiers which didn’t work, and the delayed second lockdown.

The government is looking for a boost from an elusive feel good factor even though only 10% of the population think government regulations are too harsh (49% thought they weren’t strict enough) but when guidelines are eased, the rate of infection increases, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s gamble reward our endurance and coincidentally help the hospitality sector has only proved to be an expensive way to help spread the virus. With unprecedented job losses taking money out of the economy and uncertainty surrounding the control of the virus, Christmas preparations have been delayed and any window of opportunity to hit the streets to shop has highlighted our inability to follow the most basic public health instructions.


Rishi Sunak at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference
Rishi Sunak at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference

Recent communal Eid and Diwali celebrations were suspended, so why are we relaxing rules for Christmas gatherings during a second spike of the disease when we’re pretty sure it will lead to a third spike? There will be many parents genuinely unable to pay for presents and a large number who will still buy gifts they can’t afford, not through fecklessness, but because Covid-19 arrived on the back of 10 years of austerity; Conservatives pursued austerity policies and the current administration is filled with neoliberal zealots who are totally incapable of handling the pandemic, a Cabinet tied to the notion that Christmas spending will somehow save the economy.


Boris Johnson at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference
Boris Johnson at a Downing Street Daily Press Conference

I'm not religious but I accept that some people ascribe meaning to this time of year although their belief is being trampled by the out-of-control machine dedicated to profit. The hostilities between parties advocating the commercialisation of Christmas and traditionalists pushing their views on religious significance has been raging since the height of the cold war, when the ideological conflict was being fought over consumer goods as much as the race to over-stock with nuclear arms. Fifty years ago, the West fought dirty with propaganda directed at housewives, seducing them with a wide range of appliances and products on supermarket shelves that they were obviously unable to live without. The East failed to deliver promised social equality because money was poured into the military-industrial complex rather than into basics. Despite, or rather because of planned obsolescence, the West won the day, granting us the power to consume. Then along comes 2020’s Covid pandemic which seems to have defeated the proponents of consumerism and left the Church searching for answers.


The live music industry has ground to a halt. I managed to attend two events in Genoa, the Porto Antico Prog Fest in July, just as the UK was emerging from lockdown and Italy had shown that it was possible to overcome the first wave of the pandemic with a strict lockdown, and the Abracadabra Festival in September, just before the UK had to impose tiers of restrictions and the Italians hadn’t quite started their second spike. It was a relief that musicians could continue to write, record and release new music, but promoting new material is reliant on gigs. Live music has its own economy which creates billions for the exchequer, a workforce behind the bands and a network of venues, all of which had to be closed. It’s ironic that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport were holding a select committee inquiry into the economics of music streaming while artists and support staff have not been provided with any sort of bail-out because of the way they slip between the holes in the safety net.

I wouldn’t suggest it’s unreasonable to ban concerts and other forms of human congregation because this is a measure that will save lives. The unacceptable cost of restricting our normal behaviour is when lockdown results in a loss of income for workers, ignoring the very real concerns of millions of self-employed and those on zero hour contracts, and anyone that doesn’t fall under the key worker banner. Many musicians fall into this category, as do others working in the industry such as road crew and studio technicians. Sunak’s forced U-turns on support are an indication that he cares more about the state of the country’s finances more than he does for the people who generate the wealth and when he reluctantly concedes ground, he is still far less generous than the finance ministers of most major economies and incapable of ensuring money goes to the people who need it.


What am I wishing for this year? A solution to the pandemic, full financial support for sectors forced to close along with anyone who has lost their job or is unable to perform their normal work due to Covid-19, and peace on earth (yes, really!)

To the government: Save livelihoods. Save lives. The economy will then take care of itself.

I wish everyone else the best Christmas possible under very difficult circumstances.







By ProgBlog, Mar 27 2020 05:40PM

Everyday normal service has been increasingly abnormal since at least 2016 and probably since 2008. The UK’s EU referendum result might have seemed like a bolt from the blue but the shockwaves from the global financial meltdown, especially the austerity measures introduced by the new government in 2010 where the wrong demographic was punished for the shortcomings of capitalism, presaged the conditions necessary for the descent into irrationality and self-harm. The decline really began long before the 21st century when the influence of large corporations, becoming multinationals during a period of rapid globalisation that showed no signs of aversion to the exploitation of the mineral wealth or workforce of developing countries, embarked on schemes to protect their own value at the expense of the general population, democracy and the natural environment.

The power and behaviour of vested interests has eroded the mechanisms of world governments to the extent that we’re unable to respond appropriately to the current coronavirus crisis. Poor animal husbandry and unregulated exotic live meat markets facilitated the rise of a novel zoonosis; early reports of a new viral respiratory disease in China were suppressed and medical staff branded enemies of the State; the near-universal use of smartphones, implicated in a pandemic for the first time, acted as an ideal vector for spreading Covid-19; the connectivity of people, a benefit of globalisation, allowed the virus to spread as tourism and business continued as normal; vehicle and industrial pollutants responsible for inflammation of the respiratory tract exacerbated the severity of the disease; and in the UK, where 10 years of deliberate underfunding and deconstruction of the NHS has left staff shortages in every department, we are saddled with a Prime Minister unwilling to restrict the freedom of movement of its citizens, a PM whose initial policy acknowledged that Covid-19 would kill off the elderly as the rest of the population gained herd-immunity. However, it’s important to point out that no single country is to blame for the rise and spread of Covid-19, it’s a failure of regulation and standards.


BBC News coronavirus update 26/3/20
BBC News coronavirus update 26/3/20

I have to admit that when the disease first appeared in China, I was sceptical of its severity and perhaps foolhardily, I was skiing in Sauze d’Oulx, an hour away from Torino, while a number of provinces in neighbouring Lombardy were under lockdown. Coronavirus is common and anyone with only mild symptoms caused by Covid-19 will have a degree of immunity to the new strain because they’ve been previously exposed to other coronavirus. The rapid global spread and the mounting death toll in Italy, the epicentre outside of Wuhan, exposed a worldwide lack of preparation for a new pandemic, and that’s what changed my mind.

Though banning concerts, viewings at the cinema, spectator sports and other forms of human congregation will save some lives the cost, quite justifiably, is a restriction on our normal behaviour. What’s unacceptable is that any shutdown should result in a loss of income for workers and while some countries have agreed packages that will ensure no individual suffers from hardship during the crisis, the UK government has only just begun to address the very real concerns of millions of self-employed, those on zero hour contracts, anyone that doesn’t fall under the key worker banner, and those in rented accommodation but there’s no money available until June and it’s impossible to access the site for the derisory Universal Credit. Many musicians fall into this category, as do others working in the industry such as road crew and studio technicians.


Musicians' Union appeal
Musicians' Union appeal

Within the first ten days of a coronavirus impact survey of its 32000 members by the Musicians’ Union, it was estimated that musicians in the UK have already lost over £20m in earnings. Over 4000 responded to the survey with 90% saying their income had already been affected by social distancing rules, the closure of live venues and school closures, because many musicians make at least part of their income through teaching. The union announced that a new hardship fund would be set up to pay grants of £200 to out-of-work musicians to provide a small amount of relief to its members, adding that the government needed to provide urgent clarity on what wider support would be available, and called on the record industry to also play its part.


Eamonn Forde's 9 ways you can help your favourite band
Eamonn Forde's 9 ways you can help your favourite band

The first response I saw to the disruption to the livelihoods of musicians was an online article by Eamonn Forde (from Classic Rock) on the Louder website, 9 ways you can help your favourite band which neatly sets out the rationale behind some very supportive actions you can take to help secure the future of music. I attended 46 gigs between 2018 and 2019, some of which featured bands from prog’s premier league but many more were smaller or less successful acts. I tend to buy a tour programme when I go to see one of the really big groups but I’m more inclined to visit the merchandise stand for music, on vinyl if possible (recent purchases include The Lighthouse by Iamthemorning, and No Fear of Looking Down by Jadis, for instance) but I’m not unhappy to indulge in a CD or DVD (The Lifesigns debut album and Live in London - Under the Bridge, More Than Meets the Eye by Jadis, Cellar Noise’s second album Nautilus, the first three Hats Off Gentlemen it’s Adequate releases Invisible, When the Kill Code Fails, and Broken but Still Standing, Metamorphosis by Hamnesia.) I prefer to buy music direct from the artists and if it’s not available at gigs or there are no upcoming shows, the band’s own website invariably includes merchandise or redirects you an appropriate site like CD Baby. I got my (vinyl) copy of Exegi Monumentum Aere Perennius by The Rome Pro(g)ject direct from Vicenzo Ricca’s The Rome Pro(g)ject site, and got The Water Road on CD and an LP version of The Clockwork Universe by Thieves’ Kitchen from The Merch Desk via the band’s homepage. If you like a band, it’s sensible to sign up to their notifications. You’ll get advanced notice of upcoming performances (when they eventually resume) and of forthcoming releases. While there is often no problem obtaining tickets for some of the gigs I attend – I’ve been in an audience of about 10, the other nine being musician friends of the band for one concert in the rather splendid Teatro Altrove in Genova where I thought it was such a culturally significant event I’d have to pre-book my ticket to ensure my place


Event 16, Teatro Altrove, Genova
Event 16, Teatro Altrove, Genova

If you sign up to a band's mailing list you’re less likely to miss out on a special edition or limited release. A 2019 Facebook post, shortly after I’d discovered the Norwegian proggers, alerted me to the impending release of Jordsjø’s Nattfiolen; my red vinyl copy is from a limited run of 200; the first LP pressing of Sky Over Giza by La Morte Viene dallo Spazio which I’d seen advertised on their Facebook page (they caught my attention because they were on the same bill as Melting Clock at a gig in Genova which I was unable to attend) was a run of 500 copies divided into ten different colours representing different planets, selling for €17 plus p+p. I chose ‘Earth’.


Sky Over Giza on vinyl
Sky Over Giza on vinyl

Links from a group’s own website frequently redirect you to their Bandcamp store. I’ve been banging the drum for Bandcamp for some time now, but it has taken on greater significance since cities have come under lockdown and record stores, not considered to be an essential service by governments, are currently closed. It’s the artists themselves who post your album when you buy something via Bandcamp, and the price quoted is a minimum suggested price, leaving you free to decide whether you’re willing to pay more. There’s also the opportunity to leave a message for the artist – a nice bit of connectivity that fits in with the prog ethos – that is often acknowledged by the musicians by including a hand-written ’thank you’; it’s like having a 24/7 merchandise desk at your fingertips (T-shirts and bundles of items are available.) It’s probably lazy, but I give Bandcamp gift vouchers at Christmas to encourage the recipients to seek out new music and support artists. It’s possible to listen to a full album without buying it, but I don’t think trying something out is abusing the system. I’ll always buy a copy on a physical medium if I like the material and there’s one available but I do buy downloads if there’s not.


Thank You note from Raphael Weinroth Browne
Thank You note from Raphael Weinroth Browne

I was please that I ticked most of the boxes from the article but was quite surprised by one suggestion – Get political: campaign for better deals for acts, something that really appeals to me. I’m well-versed in fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds through my former union work and the music business doesn’t have such a great history when it comes to looking after artists. Forde’s piece goes on to suggest that those who use streaming services should buy physical copies of the music they like because streaming revenues are tiny, providing a stark example of the iniquitous behaviour of faceless and bland record companies. You should also remember that Spotify or whichever other service you’re using is charging you to harvest your personal preferences for its data-crunching algorithms, nudging your choices.

The other personal omission from Forde’s list was that I haven’t yet subscribed to a crowd-funding campaign, but that’s because I have not yet come across an appropriate project to subscribe to. I really like the idea – I’ve put money into Crystal Palace FC to ensure the club’s continued existence during their periods in administration, because I believe the club provides an important community role – and would willingly help out an artist that I liked if they ticked all the appropriate social and political buttons.


Listening to and writing about music forms a major part of my life and though it’s not what puts bread on my table, I’m concerned about the people who provide me with this pleasure and who, like many of the self-employed, have only been left with promises. Investing in the music that we love now, through Bandcamp or otherwise directly with the artists, not only provides a revenue stream but also sends the message that once we’re through these unprecedented times, we’ll support them in the future.


Covid-19 should be taken seriously - for its effects on health and the way it turns everyday life upside down.


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